By Maureen Rouhi
Last night, I enjoyed a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of symposium sessions and booth hopping at the exposition. For one-and-a-half hours at the Ralston Room of the Palace Hotel, I and many other meeting attendees simply immersed ourselves in music, piano solos by Victoria Bragin and chamber music from the Caltech Chamber Music Ensemble. The evening offered us a facet of the lives of chemists that is rarely on display.
Bragin retired as a chemistry professor from Pasadena City College in 2002. Her professional career was devoted to chemical education, particularly the development of discovery-based materials to help explain chemistry concepts. Music obviously is central to her life; in 2002, she won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.
Like Bragin, the members of the Caltech Chamber Music Ensemble all have chemistry connections. June Wicks (violin) is a chemistry undergraduate who is currently part of a team studying the electrochemistry of azurin, an electron-transfer protein. Shelley Chang (violin) is a senior majoring in chemistry and biochemistry with a knack for solving the Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds. Christina Vizcarra (viola) is an NSF graduate research fellow working with Steve Mayo on continuum electrostatic models in protein design. John A. Keith (cello) is a member of Bill Goddard's group and is interested in homogeneous organometallic catalysis. Also in Goddard’s group is Victor Wai Tak Wan (piano), who’s working on designing enzyme active sites.
Except for Robert Schumann, composers of the works performed also have science connections. One of them, E. L. Bearer, a neuroscientist at Brown University, was present for the premier performance of "Deep," a piano piece that describes in musical language the subject of her Ph.D. thesis: lipid rafts in membranes, which are localized domains in negatively charged lipids. Bragin's performance was accompanied by a slide show of images created by Bearer’s collaborator Russell Jacobs, a physical chemist.
The two other featured composers were Alexander Borodin and Sir Edward Elgar. According to Bragin, the chemist Borodin was a weekend composer, whereas the composer Elgar was a weekend chemist.
The concert was billed as the Second Annual Chemists-Composers Concert, the first having been held last year at the national meeting in Washington, D.C. Both concerts were organized by Bragin, Jeffrey Seeman and the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. According to Seeman, the third annual concert, at the ACS national meeting in Boston, will feature a jazz program. It seems like the ACS fall national meeting now also has a musical tradition.